Especially the Household of Faith

So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith. Galatians 6:10 

Among those in need, can Christians prioritize their brothers and sisters in Christ? The United Methodist Church teaches that it is not only permissible to do so, it is officially required. The General Rules we inherited from John Wesley direct those who want to belong to the Methodist societies to do all the good they can, specifically:

By doing good, especially to them that are of the household of faith or groaning so to be; employing them preferably to others; buying one of another, helping each other in business, and so much the more because the world will love its own and them only.

Wesley is alluding to Paul’s writing in Galatians 6:10. Paul’s word “especially” (μάλιστα) could also be translated “most of all” or “above all” or “to the greatest degree”.

The General Rules demand that members of Methodist societies help the poor, spread the gospel to everyone and live within their means, all while at the same time giving preference to their Christian brothers and sisters. The Rules are one of the United Methodist Church’s unalterable standards of doctrine.

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The Coincidence of Ascension Day and the National Day of Prayer

Yesterday marked both the Christian observance of Ascension Day and the civic observance of the National Day of Prayer.

The latter is a function of American civil religion which dates to 1952. The current practice of observing the National Day of Prayer on the first Thursday of May dates to 1988. The text of the president’s politically inclusive 2016 proclamation is here.

For Christians, the Feast of the Ascension is the infinitely more important of the two observances. Based on the chronology in the Book of Acts, it comes 40 days after Easter and commemorates Christ ascension to the right hand of God.

Christ’s ascension is central to the apostolic Christian faith, yet Ascension Day is the most underappreciated festival of the Christian year. The orthodox Christians who confess the Apostles and Nicene creeds affirm “He ascended into heaven.” There, as the creed reminds us, “he is seated at the right hand of the Father.” There he reigns as the Lord of heaven and earth and the head of his church. From there he pours out the Holy Spirit. There he sits in power until he comes again in glory to restore all creation. There the church meets him by faith in its prayer, worship and fellowship. There he joins us at the Eucharistic table as both priest and sacrifice as the veil between heaven and earth is pulled away.

Surely Christ’s exaltation to the right hand of God has something to say about how Christians understand and practice prayer.

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Wesley’s Low Opinion of Army Chaplains

As I described in Wesley and the Second Jacobite Rebellion, John Wesley found himself in the city of Newcastle in 1745, the likely target of an attack by a rebel army. Most of the English army was deployed to the continent of Europe. Only a handful of regular troops were available for the defense of England and King George II. One of the greatest dangers to the English cause, Wesley believed, was the immoral conduct of the English soldiers. On October 26, 1745, Wesley wrote the mayor of Newcastle, asking him to express his concerns with the general who commanded the English forces.

My soul has been pained day by day, even in walking the streets of Newcastle, at the senseless, shameless wickedness, the ignorant profaneness, of the poor men to whom our lives are entrusted. The continual cursing and swearing, the wanton blasphemy of the soldiers in general, must needs be a torture to the sober ear, whether of a Christian or an honest infidel. Can any that either fear God, or love their neighbor, hear this without concern? especially if they consider the interest of our country, as well as of these unhappy men themselves. For can it be expected that God should be on their side who are daily affronting Him to His face? And if God be not on their side, how little will either their number, or courage, or strength avail?

And then comes the punch in the gut for military chaplains (although Wesley never explicitly identifies them as such).

Is there no man that careth for these souls?  Doubtless there are some who ought so to do. But many of these, if I am rightly informed, receive large pay and do just nothing.

Ouch.

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Wesley and the Second Jacobite Rebellion

In 1745 Charles Edward Stuart arrived in Scotland from France and raised and army in order to invade England. Stuart was the Young Pretender to the thrones of England and Scotland, the grandson of James II who had been deposed by Parliament in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. The military actions that took place in Scotland and England in 1745 and 1746 are known as the Second Jacobite Rebellion.

John Wesley arrived in Newcastle at about the time Stuart’s force captured Edinburgh, about 100 miles to the north. This posed a potential problem for Wesley, beyond the physical dangers and difficulties associated preaching in such an environment. One of the accusations thrown at Wesley during his ministry was that he was a secret supporter of Stuart’s cause. His journal entry for July 4, 1745 includes this quotation informing Wesley why so many people were violently opposed to him.

“Sir, I will tell you the ground of this. All the gentlemen of these parts say that you have been a long time in France and Spain and are now sent hither by the Pretender; and that these societies are to join him.”

Even before the capture of Edinburgh, people in much safer parts of England feared that these strange groups of people called “Methodists” were up to no good. They were so odd, so different from the men and women one ordinarily encountered, who knew what they were really doing?  Maybe they were secretly plotting to overthrow the government. They were, of course, doing nothing of the kind, but that didn’t stop people from reacting violently to them. Mobs attacked them, injured them and even tried to kill them.

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On Religious Community Self-Definition

A healthy society hinges upon the freedom of communities to have and to express their take on the most contested dimensions of human identity and morality. And in our brighter moments as a species we have shown that that doesn’t have to involve inflicting harm on members of communities who have reached different conclusions.

This is from James Mumford, via Peter Leithart, writing about British reactions to recent events within the Anglican communion. It seems that quite a few folks are upset about Anglicans continuing to hold ostensibly outdated moral positions that have deep roots within the church’s scripture and tradition.

Mumford adds,

The conviction that organisations and communities cannot determine their own distinct ethos, their own rules for membership and their own criteria for leadership imperils the very survival of a pluralistic society. What is the point of institutions if they don’t have the freedom to organise themselves in the way they see fit?

And while the topic of the discussion is the Anglican communion, Mumford’s comments bear on the current situation in the United Methodist Church as well. It seems to me that it is both the right and the duty of each church body to establish its own identity and to live within the boundaries that it has set for itself. Being who you are as a religious institution is not itself an obstacle to either catholicity within the Church or neighborliness within the world community.